This review comes from Graeme Hunter, a philosophy professor at the University of Ottawa. (What’s the deal with all of these theologians and philosophers reviewing the book!). It was published in the May 2014 issue of Touchstone. While he praises my early chapters, he thinks my final chapters are not only “comical,” but they make him “blush.” This is a very entertaining review.
The review is not available online, but here are a few excerpts:
The first three chapters provide a lively introduction to the discipline of history and some of the different ways in which historians practice it. The middle two chapters lucidly present the contributions of Christian historians. The three closing chapters are a dithyramb on the edifying character of the study of history.
Confession: I had to look up the word “dithyramb”
The first five chapters introduce the discipline. They would be enough in themselves to intrigue a series student. The last three are a stirring call to arms. An attentive reader will wonder, however, whether the serious, critical discipline to which has just been introducted can also be the tool for social and personal benefit described in the book’s closing pages…
Now if history so easily become propaganda, how can it be a serious discipline? Chapter 3, called “History is a Foreign Country,” gives an excellent answer…”
Note: Actually the chapter is entitled “The Past is a Foreign Country.”
The concluding chapters, as already mentioned, are heartfelt propaganda for the discipline, certain to interest both those contemplating going into history and their parents. Careful readers, however, will be surprised at how the historical lion we meet in the early chapters, which resists all efforts to tame it, becomes the docile lamb of the closing pages. Fea’s valedictory words lavish too much praise on his discipline, but there is always a grain of truth in what he says. In chapter 5, for example, he argues that history gives us our best shot at resolving the “culture wars.” That’s a big claim. The kernel of truth of which it is an exaggeration is Fea’s fine insight that “our failing to bring reconciliation and healing to our divided culture is, at its core, a failure of liberal learning.”
Some of the sweet-talk with which he closes I blush to mention. History is said to be “public engagement,” “spiritual discipline,” and even “love.” Of course these are terms of endearment spoken by a lover of history to his beloved. They, too, contain an element of truth, but like most pillow talk, they ring false or comical in the public ear. The closing pages may recruit some students for the study of history, but not, I think, the kind historians should want.
An odd and disappointing choice by Touchstone to review the book. Why not ask a historian? Sorry for this, John.
Mark T. Edwards says
My senior historiography class enjoyed Why Study History very much this semester and were grateful for the opportunity to consider intersections of their faith and the discipline of history.
John Fea says
Thanks for the encouragement guys. I think this reviewer is correct when he says that my case for history is a bit over the top. Fair enough. Do the last three chapters read like a sermon? Of course they do. That was my point. I am in the trenches every day trying to show Christian kids the value of history. I hope the passion I have for my discipline came through, even it was a bit exaggerated.
I was actually quite pleased that this reviewer acknowledged my passion for the past and praised the book in places.
But I was a bit put off by his uncharitable remarks about anyone who becomes a history major as a result of this book is not the kind of history major that historians would want. Not only do I strongly disagree with that statement, but it also surprises me that the editors of Touchstone, a Christian magazine I have long respected and have published in, would let such a remark go. This is not more than just an ideological difference.
Charlie McCrary says
I haven't read the book yet, but it looks to me like it could be classified as “philosophy of history.” Maybe that's the impression that book review editors are getting, too. Would you say that's not a fair description?
John Fea says
Charlie: “Philosophy of history” can be a very theoretical sub-discipline of philosophy or history. I am definitely not trying to do “philosophy of history” with this book, at least in the traditional academic sense. But I can definitely see how a book review editor might think this. Having said that, the reviewer does not seem to be a specialist in the philosopher of history.
Oh well–I will now try to stop with all the sour grapes. I am actually very happy about Touchstone's willingness to review the book and for the conversation it has sparked here. I don't want to be so disciplinary in my thinking that I do not appreciate an exchange of ideas from across disciplines.
I believe there is a real hunger in the discipline for the kind of history majors your book attracts. You challenge your readers to incorporate historical interpretation into their readings of contemporary issues, you warn against presumptions of moral certitude while promoting historical work as a moral and spiritual enterprise, and you see the best research as that which scholars have undertaken with a humble, earnest, and sober mind. What more could we ask for? There is too much separation in the field between the humanity of its practitioners and professional standards which ask us to cut off our affective and spiritual impulses before beginning our work. I feel that what you're doing is encouraging us to mobilize these impulses in meaningful and responsible ways that enrich, rather than undermine, the quality of our work.
The author of this review relies a bit on rhetorical excess to make his points (while ironically chiding you for doing the same). Some of his remarks were valid and others made me laugh, but his last few paragraphs packed an unnecessary punch, I think.
John Fea says
Christine: You are living proof that the last sentence is not true. Thanks for the comment. I hope you are doing well.